In a Friday service featuring song, dance and poetry, mourners paid tribute to Heaven Sutton, the seven-year-old Austin girl who was fatally shot in gang crossfire last month.
About a thousand people gathered July 6 at St. Mark International Christian Church for the two-hour visitation and funeral. Speakers, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Felicia Davis, first deputy chief of staff for the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, honored the playful Heaven and stressed the need to lay down guns in a community riddled with violence.
“There has got to be a change because our babies are out here dying,” said Heaven’s uncle, Richard Harrington, 35, wearing a white t-shirt with Heaven’s smiling picture screen-printed on it. A lifelong Austin resident, Harrington called Heaven’s home, the 1700 block of North Luna Avenue, a “hot-zone.”
Wearing pink and matching the color of her daughter’s coffin, Heaven’s mother, Ashake Banks, maintained her composure throughout Friday’s non-air-conditioned service. As Chicago temperatures reached 103 degrees, funeral-goers drank water, fanned themselves with paper fans and wiped away sweat as they paid respect to the exuberant child who would’ve been a second-grader in the fall.
Heaven was hit was a stray bullet in the back June 27 at her mother’s candy stand outside their home, a stand Banks said she set up to keep neighborhood children safe from area gangs.
Her daughter marked the 20th Chicagoan younger than 17 to be killed by gunfire this year, according to a June report by the Chicago Tribune.
“Violence has got to come to an end today, not tomorrow,” said the Rev. Andre Thurmon Sr., pastor at St. Mark, during the service that filled every seat in the church, leaving extra attendees to stand in the aisles.
“There are too many innocent people dying these days,” he said, as mourners stood, yelled “halleluiah” and clapped. “Even with the tragedy of losing this innocent life, some great things are going to happen.”
Thurmon preached non-violence, urged those in attendance to sing out “futures not funerals,” and offered an opportunity for anyone carrying a gun or drugs to turn them in to the church, no questions asked.
“Somebody’s life is going to be changed today; somebody’s going to put down that gun; somebody is going to walk away from a gang,” he said. “It is time for us to end the senseless killing.”
Police say the man charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm in Heaven’s slaying, Jerrell Dorsey, 26, is affiliated with an area gang. Although a second suspect was arrested last week, he was later released, leaving the second offender in the shooting to remain at large.
“We’ve got to do something to stop this; the violence is crazy,” said Gregory Sykes, 30, Heaven’s cousin who has lived in Austin for 18 years. Sykes wore a white t-shirt similar to Harrington’s, with a picture of smiling Heaven screen-printed on the front.
Saying he feels like he’s “never safe,” Sykes said he would support Banks if she chose to leave the community following the death of her child.
“I hope this opens up everyone’s eyes to stop the violence and start loving,” he said. “It’s just a shame that kids today can’t play, enjoy themselves and grow up. Violence is taking our young too early.”